In a matter of a week’s time, the Seahawks have built arguably the best pass-rushing unit they’ve had in nearly half a decade. What had been a great weakness of theirs following the departures of local legends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett has now become an even greater strength this offseason. But while the outside addition of big end Kerry Hyder Jr. and the return of the LEO tandem formed by Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa are exciting on paper, it’s hard not to wonder where this all leaves 2020 second-round draft selection Darrell Taylor in the equation.
Despite the high vote of confidence from the Seahawks last spring, Taylor didn’t play a single snap for them in 2020. Rehabbing from a leg injury suffered in college, the former Tennessee standout suffered several setbacks throughout the season, keeping him planted on the Non-Football Injury list. Seattle was hopeful to activate him towards the end of the season and into the playoffs, but he simply couldn’t get right before time ran out. As the team’s Super Bowl hopes were quickly dashed by the Rams this past January, so were Taylor’s hopes of stepping onto an NFL field as a rookie.
Not only was last year disappointing for Taylor, but for the Seahawks as well for a multitude of reasons. If he were healthy, one could ponder if that would have been enough to prevent - or, at least, limit - their pass-rushing woes in the first half of the season.
Getting Taylor was also a costly venture, with Seattle shedding a precious third-round pick to move up to the Jets’ spot at No. 48 in order to take him. The investment, thus far, has yielded no results. A year later, he appears further down the depth chart at his most natural position: LEO.
Expected to be fully healthy at the start of training camp, can Taylor still have a significant impact on the Seahawks’ defense in 2021? Absolutely, by filling in a pair of roles. Given his athleticism and quickness, he’s still their best LEO option in nickel packages. And depending on the outcome of K.J. Wright’s free agency, Taylor could see snaps at strong-side linebacker this fall.
Seahawk Maven's Matty F. Brown has also theorized this possibility:
While his time in college was littered with inconsistency, Taylor showed most of the tools of a productive edge rusher. He displayed the power, the burst, the bend—all of which are needed for an effective and repeatable pass-rush approach, though his technique, as a whole, was often lacking.
What seemed to fly under the radar after the Seahawks selected him, due to their dire need for pure pass-rushing talent at the time, was how his athletic ability could translate to the linebacker position—particularly at SAM. Ideally, he’d be more of a rush-first SAM in Seattle, but he can handle himself in coverage quite well.
When lined up in a two-point stance, Taylor showed a knack for jamming tight ends at the line and keeping pace in man-to-man situations. If he's able to stay in line with his assignment, his 33-inch arms should help him win most ball-fights. Dropping back into coverage off the line, he proved competent in open space, working well in one-on-one tackling opportunities with good reaction time and closing speed to the ball against all types of pass-catchers.
Taylor offers more pass-rushing upside from the position than Wright, of course, but it may be a struggle for him to fill the 11-year veteran's shoes as a defender at - and behind - the line of scrimmage. Last year, Wright was the only player in the NFL with double-digit tackles for loss (11) and passes defensed (10). He was not only stellar against the run, but in sniffing out screens as well.
On tape, one of Taylor's biggest struggles in college was shedding blocks while moving laterally with the run. Bigger linemen dominated him at the point of attack, driving him off his spot and out of the play. Even with potential space at the second level, it'll be interesting to see how Taylor handles bigger NFL bodies turning upfield and chugging at him downhill.
I have a couple other questions/concerns about Taylor in this role: Can he work through a wall of blockers on screens well enough to get to the ball-carrier or at least disrupt the play? And can he be a factor in helping seal off the edge on outside runs and quick-breaking plays like jet/fly sweeps?
The second question there is certainly more important than the first, not only from a SAM perspective, but overall. To be anything more than a rotational pass-rusher for the Seahawks, Taylor cannot afford to get bullied at the line given his size. Assuming weight won't be an issue this summer following his long hiatus from the game, there is no excuse for him not to be effective as a SAM/LEO hybrid in pretty much every facet with his athletic profile.
If he cleans up some of the aforementioned issues, Taylor being the answer in these roles would be huge for the Seahawks' defense moving forward. With a deep group of edges, as well as elite pass-rushing potential from safety Jamal Adams, this would further their ability to disguise looks and keep opposing quarterbacks and play-callers guessing all game long. Identifying potential pressure would be maddening, seeing the menacing threats of Taylor, Dunlap, Adams, Mayowa, Hyder, Bobby Wagner, Jordyn Brooks, and others all lurking in the shadows.
Despite the depth they've established over the past week, this is the kind of impact a healthy Darrell Taylor can have in 2021. The Seahawks have gotten pass-rush production out of the SAM spot before, but with the speedy Brooks now on the weak-side, having Taylor opposite him potentially adds another dimension to their linebacking corps.
In what will be his first real NFL season, the stage is set for Taylor - now being overlooked by many - to fill an underrated need of Seattle's and bolster a promising defense fresh off its impressive second-half turnaround.